Uganda is a constitutional republic led since 1986 by President Yoweri Museveni of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. In 2016 voters re-elected Museveni to a fifth five-year term and returned an NRM majority to the unicameral parliament. Allegations of disenfranchisement and voter intimidation, harassment of the opposition, closure of social media websites, and lack of transparency and independence in the Electoral Commission (EC), marred the elections that also fell short of international standards. The periods before, during, and after the elections were marked by a closing of political space, intimidation of journalists, and widespread use of torture by the security agencies.
The national police maintain internal security. While the army is responsible for external security, the president detailed army officials to leadership roles within the police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; torture; and arbitrary detention by government agencies. The government was also responsible for harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; detainment of political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; lack of independence of the judiciary; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on political participation; significant acts of corruption; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons (LGBTI); and the existence of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults.
The government was reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government, and impunity was a problem.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government often restricted this right.
Freedom of Expression: The government restricted citizens’ ability to criticize its actions. It also restricted some political symbols, musical lyrics, and theatrical performances.
On September 18, the government published guidelines that banned the public from wearing red berets, saying that the berets would henceforth be considered a military uniform and therefore the exclusive property of the state. Red berets had been the symbol worn by supporters of Kyagulanyi’s People Power movement. On October 1, Kyagulanyi reported that the UPF and UPDF had started arresting People Power supporters whom they found wearing the red berets. The UPF on numerous occasions also confiscated People Power movement insignia, especially red berets and T-shirts with pro-Kyagulanyi messages. On August 13, the UPF raided the Democratic Party’s (DP) offices, arrested four supporters, and confiscated 300 T-shirts with pro-Kyagulanyi messages commemorating the one-year anniversary of Kyagulanyi’s arrest and torture. The UPF said the T-shirts bore messages inciting violence. The UPF released the four DP supporters later that day and said it only called them in for interrogation.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The country had an active media environment with numerous privately owned newspapers and television and radio stations. These media outlets regularly covered stories and often provided commentary critical of the government and officials. The UPF’s Media and Political Crimes Unit, however, closely monitored all radio, television, and print media, and security forces subjected numerous journalists to harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Government officials and ruling party members owned many of the private rural radio stations and imposed reporting restrictions. Media practitioners said government and security agents occasionally called editors and instructed them not to publish stories that negatively portrayed the government. On April 30, the communications regulator Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) wrote to broadcast houses ordering the suspension of 39 journalists holding producer and editing positions for violating minimum broadcast standards when they aired live images of a Kyagulanyi procession through Kampala on April 29. The UCC also ordered the media houses to submit all footage aired that day for investigation. On May 8, the Uganda Journalists Association and two private attorneys filed an application in court to block the UCC action, which a court granted May 23, indicating that the UCC had overstepped its mandate.
Violence and Harassment: Security forces subjected journalists and media houses to violence, harassment, and intimidation. On February 7, the UPF arrested five local and international journalists who were working undercover to report on the theft of drugs in public hospitals. The UPF stated that it arrested the five on charges of “illegal possession of classified drugs.” On February 8, the UPF released the journalists on police bond but said investigations into the case continued. Civil society contacts also reported that in October the president expelled a journalist from a press conference after the reporter asked a question about the country’s fiscal debt.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government penalized those who published items counter to its guidelines, and directly and indirectly censored the media, including by controlling licensing and advertising, instructing editors to suspend critical journalists, arresting and beating journalists, and disrupting and ransacking photojournalistic exhibitions. The media, under government pressure, practiced self-censorship. On July 24, NBS TV aired live footage as Kyagulanyi launched his presidential bid in his home but edited out parts of his speech that were critical of the regime and of the president. In early August the UCC announced that it required online publishers, bloggers, and influencers to register with them for a $20 annual license. The UPF on several occasions switched off and broke into FM radio station studios that hosted opposition politician Kizza Besigye for talk shows. On April 18, the UPF switched off the Mubende FM radio transmission, and then forced its way into the studios where Besigye was attending a talk show and arrested him.
Libel/Slander Laws: Authorities used libel and slander laws to suppress criticism of government officials. On June 14, local media reported that on June 12 the authorities arrested journalist Pidson Kareire for offensive communication and criminal libel in relation to stories he published about labor recruitment companies with ties to the president’s family.
National Security: Authorities cited laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies. Security agencies arrested numerous dissidents on charges of incitement of violence. UPF and UPDF officials on June 15 arrested events manager and Kyagulanyi supporter Andrew Mukasa as he held a press conference to announce a marathon in Kyagulanyi’s honor, on charges of inciting violence and disturbing the president’s peace. The UPF arraigned him in court on June 19 and released him on bail July 11. The case continued at year’s end.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern. The government continued to uphold its enabling asylum policies and practices towards refugees and asylum seekers from various countries, mainly from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi, and Somalia. Most refugees enjoyed unhindered access to asylum, freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to registration and documentation, and access to justice, education, health care, and employment.
UNHCR and NGOs received reports that some government officials demanded bribes from refugees to process or issue paperwork, especially at Old Kampala Police Station, where urban refugees and other migrants registered.
Refoulement: Although there were no credible reports of refoulement during the year, Rwandan and Burundian refugee groups continued to express fear that authorities were either complicit in or unable to stop extrajudicial actions by neighboring governments. South Sudanese human rights defenders resident in the country also feared forcible return because of threats from government officials.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Individuals fleeing South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as long as Congolese are from eastern DRC) who enter the country through a designated border point have automatic “prima facie” refugee status (status without determination of individual refugee status). The local Refugee Eligibility Committee, however, determines whether individuals fleeing from Rwanda, Somalia, and Burundi and other countries are eligible for refugee status. The committee was functional, but administrative issues and the continued influx of asylum seekers from Somalia, Eritrea, and Burundi created a backlog of more than 26,000 asylum seeker cases as of June.
Safe Country of Origin/Transit: The country does not have a policy of presumptive denials of asylum to applicants. Numerous sources, however, reported that for several years the country clandestinely received migrants expelled from Israel. According to official reports, the government was unaware of Israeli government plans–later challenged and halted in Israeli courts–to remove approximately 39,000 migrants to unnamed African countries. Sources reported many Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Sudanese migrants crossed through the country. Some of these migrants eventually made their way to Libya and attempted to cross to Europe. There are no credible reports of official acquiescence or complicity in such crossings. There were no further reports received during the year.
Durable Solutions: The government did not accept third-country refugees for resettlement, but it assisted in the safe and voluntary return of refugees to their homes and supported the resettlement of third-country refugees to other countries by providing birth certificates and travel documents. A 2015 constitutional court ruling confirmed that certain long-term refugees have the right to naturalize, and in 2016, the government committed to begin processing naturalization cases for an estimated 15,000 refugees who had resided in the country for approximately 20 years. During the year there were no known cases of a refugee having naturalized.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The law also allows authorities to carry out elections for the lowest-level local government officials by having voters line up behind their preferred candidate or the candidate’s representative, portrait, or symbol. Serious irregularities marred the 2016 presidential and parliamentary elections and several special parliament elections since.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties of up to 12 years’ imprisonment and confiscation of the convicted persons’ property for official corruption. Nevertheless, transparency civil society organizations stated the government did not implement the law effectively, officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and, many corruption cases remained pending for years.
Corruption: Media reported numerous cases of government corruption, including a July 7 investigation that revealed members of the judiciary, police, and prisons, some caught on camera, soliciting bribes from the public to secure noncash bail. According to media reports, officials–including judges and state attorneys–collaborated to keep individuals detained until their families paid a bribe. The Kampala City High Court was one of the major epicenters of these activities. In response to this and other allegations of corruption, the chief justice established a taskforce to investigate malpractice in the judiciary; it was due to report findings in late October but did not do so by year’s end. On February 18, the Parliament Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities, and State Enterprises (COSASE) published its findings from the 2018 inquiry into “irregular conduct” by the central bank in the process of taking over defunct banks and noted that the central bank acted irregularly in the process. It recommended that central bank officials responsible should account for their actions. Local media reported that MPs across political lines faulted the COSASE for not naming individuals responsible or recommending any arrests. On February 19, the Inspector General of Government (IGG) asked ISO to investigate allegations that members of the COSASE had received bribes from officials in the central bank. In March media reported that the speaker of parliament rejected this request and wrote that it was an attempt to attack parliamentary investigations and “blackmail” and “intimidate” parliamentarians. By year’s end there were no criminal proceedings or resignations resulting from the COSASE report.
On June 9, domestic media reported that the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), a governance program in the country established by European nations, was withdrawing support from four domestic NGOs due to allegations of significant corruption. The report also stated that the DGF had identified widespread corruption among its own staff members, whom they later reprimanded.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires public officials to disclose their income, assets, and liabilities, and those of their spouses, children, and dependents, within three months of assuming office, and every two years thereafter. The requirement applies to 42 position classifications, totaling approximately 25,000 officials, including ministers, MPs, political party leaders, judicial officers, permanent secretaries, and government department heads, among others. Public officials who leave office six or more months after their most recent financial declaration are required to refile. The IGG is responsible for monitoring compliance with the declaration requirements, and penalties include a warning, demotion, and dismissal.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups operated with government restrictions. The government restricted and failed to cooperate with most domestic and international NGOs, especially those focused on governance and human rights (see section 2.b.). The president repeatedly accused civil society of accepting funding from foreign donors interested in destabilizing the country.
On February 13, 19 NGOs received hand-delivered letters from the UPF asking for information about their services, details of their staff members, sources of funding, and immigration status of foreign workers. Under current law the government requires all NGOs to provide this information to the government-run NGO Bureau when they register. On February 23, the NGO Forum, an organization that represents NGOs in the country, wrote a letter to the Minister of Internal Affairs objecting to this new directive. At year’s end the ministry had not responded to the letter, and the 19 NGOs had not submitted the requested information. On August 7, the Ministry of Internal Affairs started a month-long national exercise to reverify all NGOs in the country. According to the ministry, there were more than 10,000 NGOs with expired permits in the country. On September 7, the NGO Forum wrote to the Ministry of Internal Affairs asking for an extension of the reverification deadline, noting that many rural NGOs had limited internet access and found it difficult to complete the requirements in such a limited time but the Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to extend the deadline. On November 16, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it had shut 12,000 NGOs that missed the reverification exercise, requiring them to restart the lengthy registration process if they wished to continue to operate. The ministry said that only the 2,200 NGOs that completed the reverification exercise would be permitted to operate.
On August 8, the government’s anti-money-laundering agency, the FIA, sent a letter to banks asking for financial information and three years of bank statements for 13 NGOs. All the NGOs targeted were governance, anticorruption, or environmental activism NGOs and were vocal critics of government activities. Among the NGOs was the DGF, the largest pool of donor funding for governance-related activities in the country. Civil society leaders and opposition politicians claimed that the request amounted to “blackmail” and was an attempt to stall the organizations’ activities, an allegation that the government denied.
The government was often hostile to concerns of local and international human rights organizations, and government officials dismissed NGO claims of human rights abuses by security forces. On June 28, media reported that 149 civil society organizations under the umbrella body, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda, had petitioned the government to release reports on and prosecute culprits of 35 unsolved break-ins in their offices since 2014. Civil society leaders also noted that, in addition to electronic equipment and cash, thieves sometimes stole documents that had no financial values. In the second break-in during the year, on August 12, Rainbow Mirrors, a civil society organization advocating for the rights of transgender sex workers, reported on social media that unidentified persons broke into their offices. The organization filed a complaint with the police, which did not report details of investigations by year’s end.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The UHRC is the constitutionally mandated institution with quasi-judicial powers authorized to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, direct the release of detainees, and award compensation to abuse victims. The president appoints its board, consisting of a chairperson and five commissioners.
The UHRC pursues suspected human rights abusers, including in the military and police forces. It visits and inspects places of detention and holds private conferences with detainees on their conditions in custody. It investigates reports of human rights abuses, reports to parliament its annual findings, and recommends measures to improve the executive’s respect of human rights. The UHRC reported that the executive did not always implement its recommendations. On August 16, the UHRC Chair stated that security agencies had not yet paid more than 8.2 billion shillings ($2.2 million) that the UHRC had awarded to victims of torture since 2001. According to local media, the chair said the delay occurred because the Ministry of Finance had not released 5 billion shillings ($1.3 million) to the attorney general for compensation fees and had not responded to letters from the president requesting the release of these funds. According to the UHRC 2018 annual report, a 2016 policy change that made each institution, rather than the attorney-general, responsible for compensating victims had caused delays, since the various institutions, particularly the UPF and the UPDF, had not budgeted for these large awards. On March 30, President Museveni signed the Human Rights (Enforcement) Act 2019, which changes the existing policy and makes individual perpetrators responsible for compensating victims. By year’s end courts had not yet convicted any individual or institution under this law. Some human rights activists and complainants said the UHRC lacked the courage to stand up to the executive in politically sensitive cases. According to local media, opposition politicians said the UHRC limited its actions pertaining to human rights violations to public statements and reports.
The Committee on Human Rights is the legislative team mandated to monitor and report on human rights concerns in all parliamentary business, monitor government’s compliance with national and international human rights instruments, study UHRC recommendations, and hold the executive accountable for the respect of human rights. On August 15, the committee opened an investigation into allegations that ISO kidnapped and tortured detainees at safe houses. Local media reported that, following reports from witnesses that security agents followed and intimidated them, the speaker of parliament asked the government to respect the rule of law and cooperate with the Committee. On September 4, Minister of Security Tumwine confirmed there were “several safe houses,” but said he would not permit the committee to visit them. On September 6, families of individuals detained in safe houses told the committee about difficulties obtaining information about or seeing their relatives, including a number who held for over two years. The following day ISO released to the police 60 detainees from custody in safe houses. On September 10, media reported that ISO barred members of the committee from accessing potential safe houses at four locations. Powers of the committee were limited to producing a report with recommendations, and tabling it to parliament, which would decide how to move forward.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for workers, except members of the armed forces, to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. The Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development must register unions before they may engage in collective bargaining.
The law allows unions to conduct activities without interference, prohibits antiunion discrimination by employers, and provides for reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity. The law also empowers the Minister of Gender, Labor, and Social Development and labor officers to refer disputes to the Industrial Court if initial mediation and arbitration attempts fail.
The government did not effectively enforce applicable labor laws. Civil society organizations said the Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development did not allocate sufficient funds to hire, train, and equip labor inspectors to enforce labor laws effectively. Employers who violated a worker’s right to form and join a trade union or bargain collectively faced penalties that were generally insufficient to deter violations.
The government generally did not protect the constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Antiunion discrimination occurred, and labor activists accused several private companies of deterring employees from joining unions. On May 24, the leadership of the Uganda National Teachers Union claimed that resident district commissioners and other local officials were threatening teachers to stop their industrial action or face repercussions.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, including by children, but does not prohibit prison labor. The law states that prison labor constitutes forced labor only if a worker is “hired out to, or placed at the disposal of, a private individual, company, or association.” Those convicted of using forced labor are subject to penalties that are ineffective to deter violations.
Local civil society organizations and media reported that many citizens working overseas, particularly in the Gulf States, became victims of forced labor. Civil society organizations reported that traffickers and legitimate recruitment companies continued to send mainly female jobseekers to Gulf countries where many employers treated workers as indentured servants, withheld pay, and subjected them to other harsh conditions. Media reported on several local women trafficked to the Middle East, some of whom suffered serious injury or death.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor but allows children as young as 12 years of age to do some types of hazardous work under adult supervision. Children are required to attend school until age 13. This standard makes children ages 13 to 15 vulnerable to child labor because they are not required to attend school but are not legally permitted to do most types of work. The law places limitations on working hours and provides for occupational safety and health restrictions for children. The government did not effectively enforce the law and penalties were insufficient to deter violations.
Child labor was common, especially in the informal sector. Local civil society organizations and the UHRC reported that children worked in fishing, gold and sand mining, cattle herding, grasshopper collecting, truck loading, street vending, begging, scrap collecting, street hawking, stone quarrying, brick making, road construction and repair, car washing, domestic services, service work (restaurants, bars, shops), cross-border smuggling, and commercial farming (including the production of tea, coffee, sugarcane, vanilla, tobacco, rice, cotton, charcoal, and palm oil). Local civil society organizations and media reported that poverty led children to drop out of school to work on commercial farms while some parents took their children along to work in artisanal mines to supplement family incomes. According to government statistics, children from nearly half of all families living on less than $1 a day dropped out of school to work. Local civil society organizations reported that orphaned children sought work due to the absence of parental authority. Local civil society organizations and local media also reported commercial sexual exploitation of children (see section 6).
Local NGOs reported that children who worked as artisanal gold miners were exposed to mercury, and many were unaware of the medium- to long-term effects of the exposure. They felt compelled to continue working due to poverty and a lack of employment alternatives. Children also suffered injuries in poorly dug mine shafts that often collapsed.
On June 18, a group of government officials, journalists, and civil society organization staff traveled to the eastern portion of the country to verify media reports of a market where traffickers sold children. The group reported they found girls ages 12-16, usually from Karamoja, who had been sold for 20,000-50,000 shillings ($5.33-$13.33) and been taken to Kampala where they worked as beggars, domestic workers, or prostitutes in the commercial sex trade.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
While the law prohibits discrimination in respect of employment and occupation, the government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Although the law prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, refugee or stateless status, disability, age, language, and HIV or communicable disease status, it did not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and LGBTI persons faced social and legal discrimination. From March 2018 to June, Pius Bigirimana, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development, led the African delegation in negotiating the standards of the International Labor Organization for violence and harassment in the world of work. Bigirimana led the Africa delegation in a walk out in 2018 in protest to the inclusion of LGBTI people as a vulnerable group. In June, Bigirimana successfully negotiated to remove the broader definition of vulnerable groups that included LGBTI people among others, arguing that the list was not exhaustive, and each member state would be free to determine what it considered vulnerable groups.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The law technically provides for a national minimum wage much lower than the government’s official poverty income level. This minimum wage standard was never implemented, and the level has not changed since 1984. On February 19, parliament passed the Minimum Wage Bill of 2015, which included provision for a board to establish minimum wages for different sectors. Official parliamentary communications reported that on August 21 President Museveni declined to sign the bill, arguing that existing law was sufficient. The government did not enforce existing wage laws effectively and as a result, penalties were insufficient to deter violations.
The maximum legal workweek is 48 hours, and the maximum workday is 10 hours. The law provides that the workweek may be extended to 56 hours per week, including overtime, with the employee’s consent. An employee may work more than 10 hours in a single day if the average number of hours over a period of three weeks does not exceed 10 hours per day, or 56 hours per week. For employees who work beyond 48 hours in a single week, the law requires employers to pay a minimum of 1.5 times the employee’s normal hourly rate for the overtime hours, and twice the employee’s normal hourly rate for work on public holidays. For every four months of continuous employment, an employee is entitled to seven days of paid annual leave. Nonetheless, local civil society organizations reported that most domestic employees worked all year round without leave.
The law establishes occupational safety and health standards and regulations for all workers, but according to local civil society organizations, the Ministry of Labor’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health did not fully enforce them. The law authorizes labor inspectors to access and examine any workplace, issue fines, and mediate some labor disputes. While the law allows workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardizing their employment, legal protection for such workers was ineffective.
Authorities did not effectively enforce labor laws due to insufficient resources for monitoring. The number of inspectors was insufficient to enforce the law. The labor officers often depended on complainants and local civil society organizations to pay for their travel to inspection sites. Platform for Labor Action (PLA) reported that many of the 73 labor officers were in fact dual-hatted as social workers and only did labor-related work when a complainant reported an abuse.
According to PLA and the National Organization of Trade Unions (NOTU), most workers were unaware of their employers’ responsibility to ensure a safe working environment, and many did not challenge unsafe working conditions, for fear of losing their jobs.
Labor officials reported that labor laws did not protect workers in the informal economy, including many domestic and agricultural workers. According to government statistics, the informal sector employed up to 86 percent of the labor force. The formal pension systems covered less than 10 percent of the working population.
PLA reported that violations of standard wages, overtime pay, or safety and health standards were common in the manufacturing sector.